South Korean robot prison guards: R2-D2 maybe, not the Terminator


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REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- Think of it more as R2-D2 than the Terminator.

South Korea is ready to wheel out its latest weapon in the war against crime: a 5-foot-tall, four-wheeled prison guard robot that will patrol the behind-bars hallways of penal institutions, even assess the mental states of prisoners.

This won’t be just any new guard to join the team. There will be no breaks, no demands for higher pay, no unprovoked attacks and not even a chance of accepting a bribe.


As South Korea battles Japan for supremacy in robot technology, designers have invented what they call a team of “friendly robots” that will not just guard prisoners but keep an eye on their well-being to boot.

Witness the smile etched into the boxy white head and the lumbering body that exudes more Elmo than executioner.

The Ministry of Justice, which developed the robots under consultation with a South Korean research group and a nearby university, has said the project will cost $864,000 and will be launched in a jail in the city of Pohang for a monthlong trial starting in March.

The droids will conduct night patrols, rolling along prison corridors to scan cells with sensors that can detect suspicious activity or injured or hostile inmates.

“The robots are not terminators,” said one professor associated with the project. ‘Their job is not cracking down on violent prisoners. They are helpers.”

Meanwhile, designers are making last-minute changes to the robot guards to make them look more “humane and friendly” behind bars.


In 2013, South Korea also plans to unveil Robot Land, a $600-million theme park celebrating famous science fiction cyborgs and motion picture androids. The theme park will feature 11 rides, seven attractions and eight shows on 190 acres. Included will be an aquarium where visitors control robot fish and a robot arena where boxer-bots fight a la ‘Real Steel.’

South Korea has already used artificial intelligence robotics to carry out household chores and even guard the border with North Korea. So could prison be the final frontier?

So far, not everyone here is lining up behind the experiment in any robotic way. Wrote one Internet commentator: “What if someone just poured water over its head?”


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-- John M. Glionna

Photo: A robot prison guard prototype. Credit: Yonhap